While staying in San Jose, Costa Rica, we had a burning desire to see well beyond the city limits.
Wanting to take a day trip, but not wanting to go through the hassle of renting a car, procuring maps and driving through the pitch-dark jungle at night, we instead booked a last-minute adventure with our buddies over at Viator.
Our journey covered an amazing amount of territory in one day. We saw everything from urban to small town, cloud forest to volcano, without ever once getting lost. And for bonus not-getting-lost points, we still had time to spend a pampered afternoon lounging in nature’s hot tubs.
This part of Central America sits right smack on the Pacific Ring of Fire — volcanic activity is nearly constant — and we couldn’t imagine a visit to Costa Rica without seeing one of the country’s six active volcanoes. That would be a sin — like missing out on the monkeys — so Volcán Arenal would be the focus of our excursion.
Our day started with a spin through the country’s capital and biggest city, San Jose, as our guide, Julio, regaled us with history and highlights while slipping seamlessly from Spanish to English to accommodate all of our fellow travelers.
The world’s largest ox cart in Sarchí
A few miles up The Pan-American Highway, we made our first stop in the small town of Sarchí. The area is known as the furniture-making center of the country.
In addition to housewares, the town’s Corrales family became famous for building ox carts.
The carts were used to carry coffee down from the plantations in the mountains to the Pacific Ocean for shipping and became so iconic that Sarchí commissioned the construction of the world’s largest ox cart in 2006. The whale of a wagon stands in the main square and holds a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
When we exited the main road on our way to the west side of Volcán Arenal, we climbed higher into the mountains and the sun disappeared as we wound our way through a cloud forest.
These unique ecozones are found only in a few places on earth, where the land is shrouded in clouds almost every day of the year.
A thick jungle thrives in the constant moisture that forms when the humid tropical air rises into the mountains.
Hugging the curvy mountain road, we were treated to a beautiful surprise around every corner.
Once we crossed the crest of the range — and breaking back into the daylight — Julio pointed out the classic conical shape of Arenal, Costa Rica’s youngest and most eruptive volcano.
It felt eerie to be In the shadow of one of the world’s most active volcanoes as we pulled off the paved route and followed a gravel road up to the national park observation area.
On the short hike to the Arenal observation area we were highly impressed by the most air plant-laden trees we’d ever seen. On closer inspection, many of them were also fruit laden.
Using his hiking stick, Julio stretched up and treated us to ultra-fresh guava by knocking a few from the treetops. Believe us, until you’ve had a guava that fresh, you haven’t lived!
The viewing area is set in a large open space with a panoramic view of the valley, Lake Arenal, and on a rare, perfectly clear day the entire western side of the mountain is visible.
Standing on the platform, we watched and waited, hoping for a break, as clouds whisked by Arenal’s.
The summit played peek-a-boo with us for about a half an hour before the clouds won the day.
Though we didn’t see the entire mountain, Julio was nevertheless thrilled because we did get to see about ninety percent of the cone. And it was clear enough that lava flows and ash from recent eruptions were easily identifiable as the west slope of Arenal has been highly active since 1968.
The east side has been spared the rivers of molten rock and explosions, earning the name La Fortuna, The Fortunate.
We considered ourselves to be among the fortunate, as we were heading that way to lounge in the heated water that springs forth from the mountain at the Baldi Hot Springs Resort.
Our visions of a hot pond in the middle of the rainforest was blown out of the water.
Baldi has twenty-five separate spring-fed pools, each getting warmer as they rise up the mountain/ volcanoside.
Each pool has a unique personality with waterfalls, bridges and even full-service bars right in the naturally-heated water.
There are waterslides for kids and thrill seekers, and a full service spa for the more sublime, but we were more than content to simply soak our cares away.
See more photos of beautiful Baldi Hot Springs Resort!
After several tranquil hours making our way down from one pool to the next, we enjoyed a spread of Italian and local dishes at the resort’s buffet at the base of Arenal. Then it was back aboard the bus for the ride back to San Jose.
Making our way back through the cloud forest in the dark, we were doubly sure of our decision to leave the driving to someone with experience at wheeling through the pitch-black jungle.
And after the hot springs, a bus nap was much appreciated!
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com